Cambridge Archaeological Journal


A Spectacular History of Survey by Flying Machine!

Helen Wicksteada1 and Martyn Barbera2

a1 Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Kingston University, Knights Park, Kingston upon Thames, KT1 2QJ, UK Email:

a2 English Heritage, The Engine House, Fire Fly Avenue, Swindon SN2 2EH, UK Email:


The origins of archaeological methods are often surprising, revealing unexpected connections between science, art and entertainment. This article explores aerial survey, a visual method commonly represented as distancing or objective. We show how aerial survey's visualizing practices embody subjective notions of vision emerging throughout the nineteenth century. Aerial survey smashes linear perspective, fragments time-space, and places radical doubt at the root of claims to truth. Its techniques involve hallucination, and its affinities are with stop-motion photography and cinema. Exposing the juvenile dementia of aerial survey's infancy releases practitioners and critics from the impulse to defend or demolish its ‘enlightenment’ credentials.

(Received August 02 2010)

(Accepted October 29 2010)

(Revised July 11 2011)

Helen Wickstead is lecturer in Heritage at Kingston University, London. She is the author of Theorizing Tenure — a study of prehistoric land division — and Director of ‘art+archaeology’ an organization that creates visual art residencies and exhibitions. Her recent articles examine archaeological visualization, including drawing, geophysics, Geographical Information Systems and (with Martyn Barber) aerial photography.

Martyn Barber is currently a member of English Heritage's newly-established remote-sensing team. He is co-author of The Neolithic Flint Mines of England (1999) and The Creation of Monuments (2001), and author of Bronze and the Bronze Age (2003) and A History of Aerial Photography and Archaeology (2011).